Razor Mountain — Chapter 7.3

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

The next day, the people packed their things and broke camp. God-Speaker made signs to the river and spoke quietly, standing apart from the others. He knew now that he was not really leaving her. He had seen how weak the barriers between the worlds could be. He could reach out and find her, if he had the skill. Still, it felt like a goodbye.

It was easy travel along the lake shore, a relaxing change from the hard scrabbling through the mountains. Their surroundings made it clear though, that this was only a break. There were more mountains in their path, regardless of the direction they chose. The sun was bright in the sky, and the snow on the slopes was melting. There were puddles in every little depression, and little rivulets running over the rocks everywhere. They crossed several small streams that had clearly only just started to carve their way through the soft dirt, growing moment by moment.

It came as little surprise then, when they came over a low hill and found a real river. It was at least as large as the river they had followed to the basin, the river of Makes-Medicine. It came over a great rushing falls far up the slope, visible by the cloud of rainbow mist, but barely a whisper of the rushing water to be heard from their place far below.

This river was not just from the spring snow melt, although it clearly had swelled in recent days. It followed a path carved deep into the rock, and it had a wide mouth that spread out well above the current lake shore. The level of the water was several feet below the lip of the river’s gorge. The water was deep and dark, and rushing fast. At its narrowest, it was too wide to jump, and though it was shallower closer to the lake, it was many times wider there. Though the weather had been warmer in the basin, it would be dangerous to wade through. Even if nobody was taken by the current, the mountain water was freezing. Pieces of ice came floating down, crunching against the rocks and showing the speed of the water.

“There,” said Far-Seeing. “Not even a day of good travel before our way is blocked.”

He squinted and shielded his eyes from the sun, looking across to the far shore of the lake. “It looks like easy terrain on the other side.”

Braves-the-Storm looked in the opposite direction, away from the lake and up the slopes of the basin, toward the falls. “The trees are better here. There is something we could try.”

The slope was soft rock, layered with rich black dirt and green with moss, grasses and shrubs. It was enough soil for a decent number of pines to find places for their roots to take hold. There were a few that rose straight and tall. They could provide enough wood for a few days of fires at least.

“Let us stay here for tonight,” Braves-the-Storm said. “This is a good place to camp, on the hill. We could not get back to the old camp before night anyway.”

“But we will go back?” Far-Seeing asked.

“Of course,” Finds-the-Trail said, leaning on his spear set in the soft earth. “We agreed to try this way and see if it was passable, and then go around the other way if it wasn’t.”

“Another day of travel will only make more rivers of these little streams,” Braves-the-Storm said. “As long as we are here, let us try to make a bridge.”

The people were used to traveling, but they usually went around obstacles like this, rather than crossing them. Many seasons ago, when they traveled along the shore of the endless ocean, they had made small boats. Now, the knowledge of making them was lost to all but one or two. They had some knowledge of bridge-building too, but it was a rare thing to build a bridge to only be used only once, and the people rarely stayed in one place for long.

While some of the tribe gathered wood for fires, and several of the hunters went off in hopes of finding more game, Braves-the-Storm directed God-Speaker and several of the older men to the straightest, tallest trees, and they took turns chopping with their broadest stone hand-axes. The trees were as thick as a hand’s length, from fingertip to wrist. It was fairly soft wood, but it was still hard work to chop through, and they had to be careful that the tall trunks didn’t fall onto anyone. By the time they were done, their hands and tools were sticky with sap.

As night fell, they dragged the two trunks to a flat place near the river. Braves-the-Storm had them dig a trench in the dirt near the edge of the river. Then they rested and ate.

The hunters came back without having caught anything, and God-Speaker could hear Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail complaining about the time they were wasting on the wrong side of the lake, and speculating about better hunting across the water. Everyone else, however, seemed happy enough to have good food to eat and less freezing weather for sleeping.

That night, there were strange noises in the distance: roars and yips. The fires were kept burning bright, and several of the hunters stood guard with their spears in hand. Nobody heard anything come close, or saw any predators’ eyes reflecting the firelight in the darkness. Still, it was a potent reminder that even in this seemingly peaceful valley, the world was dangerous.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 7.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

The hunters and the fishers came back to the camp within minutes of each other. God-Speaker was feeding the fires, half lost thinking through his visions. The sun was behind the mountains, but still lent its light to the sky and the tallest peaks.

The hunters had stalked around the dam, and brought back a giant beaver and two of its young. The adult was as large as a black bear, and took three strong men to carry, slung across poles made from saplings. The hunters were more tired from hauling the creature than from the hunt; it had been felled with two well-thrown spears. The beaver young were much smaller, but still large enough to make several good meals.

The fishers had also done well. One of the nets had broken, losing most of the catch, but it could be fixed. The other two had come out of the river thick with fish. After weeks with hardly any fresh food, the prospect of so much made the people giddy. There was a flurry of activity. Some of them cut fillets of the fish and prepared them to cook or smoke on simple wooden racks. They scooped the roe from the bellies of the silver fish and passed them around. The bones and bits of leftover meat were put in waterproof skins and covered with fresh water. Then the people used fire-heated rocks to heat the mixture into a soup. Meanwhile, others flayed the huge adult beaver and the smaller young and butchered them with sharp stone knives.

God-Speaker volunteered to go back along the ridge and find clean snow and ice in the shadowy places where spring sun had not yet reached. It gave him more time to be alone with his thoughts.

The people cut up the meat and offal and wrapped it in skins filled with the clean ice and snow to keep it fresh and free of flies. It also lessened the smell of fresh meat, which could draw scavengers and predators, hungry after the long winter.

That night, they feasted on fresh fish, fish stew, and the organ meat of the beavers. The mood was festive. The fires were stoked with the deadwood strewn around the basin, and it sometimes burned with hisses and hints of strange colors, reminding God-Speaker vividly of his vision.

The hunters told stories of hunts in years past. The fires burned low and the moon fell behind the mountains, leaving a clear sky of bright stars. Braves-the-Storm spoke quietly about the journeys of the tribe through strange lands that the younger people had no memory of. He talked about the open sea in storm, and wild, crashing waves peaked with white foam. He spoke of icy shores in deep winter, and the booming of cracking ice underfoot. His low voice and the steady rhythm of his words were a sort of primal music.

They slept well, tired from hard work but full and happy and warmer than they had been on the mountain slope.

It was cooler the next morning, but still comfortable when wrapped in furs. There was plenty of work still to do, smoking meat and fish to preserve it, and taking in another, smaller haul of fish. The fires had to be fed, and the people now needed to go further and further to find wood. There were bits of old driftwood and long-drowned trees, but the only living trees in the basin were young saplings.

God-Speaker busied himself gathering wood and helping with other tasks here and there as he saw need. He had no particular skill in butchering animal or fish, or in preserving the meat or preparing the hides. Like any member of the tribe, he knew enough to participate in those tasks, but he had no names given to him for skill in these things as others did.

The people stayed at camp that day, but talk turned to travel again. As they took their mid-day meal, Braves-the-Storm sat near God-Speaker, Far-Seeing, and Finds-the-Trail. He chewed a piece of fish and nodded to God-Speaker.

“We followed the river to her ending, and she has given us a great spring bounty. We have new strength and we have good weather. We must give thought to the journey ahead.”

“We have only just arrived here,” Far-Seeing said. “Are there no more fish in the river?”

Finds-the-Trail smirked, but he said, “Fish are as good when your belly is aching from hunger, but I want more game to hunt. The animals are hungry after the long winter. They will come to the open water, but we will have to walk the shore to find them.”

Braves-the-Storm nodded. “There is the problem of wood, too. We cannot stay here and keep our fires lit. Already we must walk a long way to find wood. We might find another place like this further down the shore, with fish or game, and more trees.”

God-Speaker was hesitant to speak up, but he felt a tightness below his heart. The stone god hummed next to him.

“When we first came to this place…I had a vision,” he said.

Braves-the-Storm frowned. “Why did you not speak of this?”

“It was not urgent. There was much to do and I thought it could wait.”

“What did your vision tell you?” Braves-the-Storm asked.

God-Speaker pointed across the lake. “There is a hill there that looks like a bald head. It stands in front of a wide valley between those two mountains. If we travel along this side of the lake, we can climb that hill and see what lies beyond. My vision guided me toward that place.”

“That’s it?” Finds-the-Trail asked. “Go to the top of a hill and look around? I could have told you that the best place to see your surroundings is from a high place.”

“It is warmer here, near the lake,” Far-Seeing said. “Now is the time to stay and gather what we can. Fill our packs.”

“We can travel along the shore and still hunt and fish as we go,” Braves-the-Storm said.

Far-Seeing looked out across the lake. “There is another thing. Over along the opposite shore, I see more trees. The land looks like it makes shallower slopes. The streams from the mountains look small and easier to cross.”

He pointed down the shore on the left side of the lake. “This side looks more dangerous. There are fewer trees and that river looks much more broad.”

God-Speaker frowned. “It will take many more days to go around the other way to the bald hill.”

Braves-the-Storm took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “The streams from the mountains will run faster every day. Crossing rivers will be dangerous. We should avoid that if we can.”

God-Speaker’s vision had not been specific. How could he translate vague feelings into urgency?

“I do not know. I do not want to leave the river either. But I am called to that hill. If the rivers are growing with the melting snow, it may be easy to cross now, and impossible in a few days.”

Braves-the-Storm nodded. “You make a good point. Perhaps we should try the shorter path, along this side of the lake. If it proves unsafe, we can go back and try the long way.”

God-Speaker nodded in agreement. The two hunters frowned, but they didn’t argue. The matter seemed settled, for now.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 7.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

The mountain steppes gave way to gentler, gravel-strewn slopes. The people continued to follow the deep gorge carved by the river as it fell through a series of falls. The air grew warmer, and soon the mist coming off the rapids and falls landed wet on the rocks around the canyon, instead of turning to ice.

They came to a rock shelf, and standing at the edge they looked down into a huge basin: a low point between the many mountains all around. The river fell over the cliff in a roaring falls, then cut across the flat ground of the basin toward a lake pooled at the center. However, before it could reach its destination, it was blocked by a pile of felled trees. This dam had backed it up to form a smaller pond. From there, it cut a new, shallower path around the blockage and found its way by a longer path toward the larger body of water.

A murmur ran through the people as they gathered on the ledge. The dam meant there would be giant beavers who had wintered in this warm valley. However, other streams glinted along the slopes around the basin. The lake would be growing daily as the spring melt from the mountains funneled down into the basin. It would cover the dam, and possibly fill the entire area. The beavers might already have fled the rising waters.

They had to leave the river and walk along the ridge until they found a place where a slope gave them access down. Once they reached the basin floor, travel to the beaver pond was easy. The ground was thick with green growth, thanks to the rich soil surrounding the lake.

They stopped to make camp in the early afternoon within sight of the beaver dam, but distant enough to avoid spooking the creatures. The hunters prepared their spears and crept off to hunt. Some of the people made fire, while God-Speaker and several others went to look at the river and get fresh water.

The river cut easily through the soft earth of the basin’s floodplain, but not through the layer of rock beneath. It was wide and shallow here. As they approached, God-Speaker could see the gleam of fish in the water. Some were small and silvery, others were larger, with pink flanks. The people filled their water skins, then returned excitedly to the campsite. As soon as there was word of fish, they unpacked nets made from braided animal sinew, carefully maintained for opportunities such as this.

Swims-in-Cold-Water was the best net-maker, and she examined each net for any broken or brittle sections. She rubbed them with a fresh coating of precious animal fat to ensure their suppleness and prevent the water from drying them out.

Hunting was the purview of the young men, but fishing was something that most of the tribe could participate in. Older men and women without young children, as well as the children verging on adulthood could all participate. The most limiting factor was the number of nets. Most of the remaining people gathered the nets up and went back to the river. Even if they couldn’t all participate, they could watch.

God-Speaker remained behind with Strikes-Flint and Cuts-Hide, the mothers of the youngest children. He found an area of soft moss and new grass where he could sit away from the noise of the children playing and meditate with the stone god. He looked out over the still water of the lake and the spring colors around the basin, up to the white peaks just starting to verge into the orange and purple of the setting sun. The colors spread across the sky.

God-Speaker listened as Makes-Medicine had taught him. With his inner voice, he asked for her guidance. They had reached the end of the river. Soon, he would have to leave her.

The stone god did not speak with words. It had rarely spoken to him since Makes-Medicine died. It hummed with life, sometimes so soft that he could barely perceive it, sometimes an almost violent vibration. That humming told him things, showed him things. The colors of spring and the colors of sunset blended and mingled. He was surrounded by color. There were no edges, no barriers between one thing and another. No barriers between one world and another. Sky and earth and water and even the invisible world of spirits were intermingled.

It was always this way, God-Speaker realized. Everything connected to everything. It was only his own weakness, his own mind turned in on itself that prevented him from seeing more than a glimpse here and there. He wondered if this revelation came from Makes-Medicine, or the stone god, or if it was simply a fact of the world that he had discovered by accident.

Makes-Medicine would be there in the spirit world. He could reach out to her, just as he could reach out to the stone god. He didn’t need the physical presence of the river or the stone. If only he could see this way all the time. If only he could believe in the permeability between one world and another all the time.

He wondered how long he had been in this state. Time had no meaning here. Even as he wondered, he felt it beginning to slip away. He wanted to hold on, but he couldn’t. He was afraid that this was some unique moment that he would never be able to recreate, but he sensed that fighting it would only cause it to dissipate faster. He let it fade slowly, savoring. As the world reformed itself around him, one thing stood out.

On the far side of the basin, just to the left of the lake from where he sat, there was a gap between two distant peaks. Blocking that gap was a wide, round hill with a bare top. It looked like the top of the bald head of some great giant almost entirely buried under the world. God-Speaker saw that the bald hill would be the perfect vantage point to look out at the world beyond those two mountains. This, he knew, was the direction the people must travel.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 6.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Two days later, excited and nervous, Christopher stepped out of the bunker with a full pack on his back and another tied onto his makeshift sled. It would be more than he needed for a day trip, but he needed all of it to validate his experiment.

Christopher knew, intellectually, about the Dunning-Kruger effect, but he now realized that he had never really believed that it applied to him. Of course he knew his own strengths and limitations, fully and completely. As a suburban office worker who hadn’t gone camping since childhood, he had known he was no expert outdoorsman. On the other hand, how hard could it be, if you had the right equipment?

A week and a half in his current predicament had cured him of those notions. Even with the safe, warm, well-stocked bunker as his base camp, he could tell how out of his depth he was. Making it to the next square on the map would require a multi-day trip. He would need to navigate. He would need food and water and shelter. Even then, he had no idea what he would find when he got there.

He checked his compass and veered off at a diagonal to both the line of the cliff on his left and the shore of the pond on his right. The lightly wooded land ahead sloped slowly upward toward a pair of hills. His first landmark. He stopped after a few minutes and looked back.

The entrance hatch to his bunker was fairly well-protected under the overhang of the cliff. While it wasn’t exactly hidden, it could only really be seen from a small area of shoreline within twenty or thirty feet of the hatch. From his current position, it was invisible. If each of the locations marked on the map were a similar structure, Christopher might navigate perfectly and still never find what he was looking for. He could stand on top of it and never know.

He would have to prepare for the trip to the next square, and the trip back if he didn’t find anything. Then he’d be faced with an even tougher decision. Try again? Dare an even longer journey to the next dot in the chain? Or sit in the bunker and wait until the supplies eventually ran out, with less hope of rescue every day?

He forced himself to not think so far ahead. First, he would get to that next dot. That was enough for now.

But before he could do that, he had to convince himself that he had a reasonable chance of making it there and back.

He had decided on a one-day trip for his first major excursion. He could scout in the direction he would be headed. He could practice camping and cooking, and he would be much less likely to become catastrophically lost. He would pack everything he was going to take on the final trip. As it turned out, that was a lot.

The day ended up being perfect for hiking. The sky was clear blue. The sun shone brightly, providing what little warmth it could. Visibility was perfect, and the mountainous landscape and trees were the only thing preventing Christopher from seeing from horizon to horizon.

He was surprised how energized he felt. He was finally doing something. He was taking control. He had to admit, it felt a little out of character for him, but in a good way.

“All it took for you to be proactive was a terrible, mysterious plane crash in the wilderness,” he said to himself as he trudged up a low hill. “They should make that some kind of corporate leadership training exercise. Get your MBA in Alaskan Wilderness Survival and Self-Esteem today, at Fly-By-Night University.”

His makeshift sled worked unreasonably well, considering it was just a broken shelf. He had debated whether it would be too much of a hindrance in rough terrain, but it didn’t seem possible to carry both the tent and all his supplies on his back. So he was hauling it, at least on this test excursion, to see how practical it was.

He did his best to keep a steady pace, knowing that once he was more than a day out from the bunker, the speed of his progress would be a very real factor in his survival. He paused on a hill with three aspens crowning it and ate one of the strange jerky-and-fruit bars. He measured his progress by the movement of the sun. As it approached noon, he found a flat place with only a little snow, nestled between two low hills. A crescent-shaped grove of aspen, still clinging to a few of their yellow leaves, half-surrounded the hills, providing some protection from wind.

He unstrapped the little shovel from his backpack, he did his best to clear a space in the snow. Then he set everything down on the sled and unfurled the tent. He had set it up twice, once in the comfort of the bunker, and once on the bare, flat ground between the hatch and the pond, with the full inconvenience of heavy gloves and winter gear. Now, he did it once again, setting up the inner tent, then the outer rainfly. He used the hammer end of his hatchet to pound the stakes into the frozen earth.

By the time the tent was set up to his satisfaction he was sweating beneath the layers of winter clothes, and he realized he was intensely thirsty. He paused to drink from a jug of water, and ended up finishing half of it. It seemed strange to be so thirsty hiking in the cold, but he would have to be careful to not become dehydrated.

He hauled his gear into the tent, doing his best to avoid tracking snow inside. He set up the sleeping pad and sleeping bag. He already felt the allure of taking a warm nap, but with no alarm to wake him he didn’t want to risk accidentally camping overnight. This was only supposed to be a day trip. He took off his jacket and snow pants, and sat cross-legged, sipping water and taking inventory once more.

His backpack was filled with things he most wanted to have on hand, or keep dry. The sleeping gear, extra clothes, fire starter and the food that could be eaten on the trail. The backpack was also equipped with a pocket specifically for a first-aid kit, and straps for snow shoes, collapsible shovel, and hatchet. In the pack on the sled, he kept more food and water, a gas camp stove and fuel tank, a lantern and cooking utensils. He had also brought a rifle and a box of ammunition, even though he had never fired a gun before and doubted he would be likely to use it for hunting or self-defense.

Once he had rested and cooled down a bit, he suited up once more and went outside. He cleared a space near the tent to set up the little camp stove. First he melted enough fresh snow to refill his water bottle. Then he opened a can of chicken noodle soup. He knew that there should be nothing stopping canned goods from staying fresh for decades, but he still sniffed it tentatively. It smelled more or less like  soup. The little burner of the stove was unimpressive, but it heated the small saucepan well enough. Christopher worried that he had no good way to check the amount of fuel left in the small tank. It wasn’t a concern on this trip, but it might be a concern on a multi-day journey.

By the time he was done with his lunch and felt somewhat rested, it was well past midday. He felt a little foolish disassembling the tent after having it up for an hour, but he packed it back into its bag, and all the rest of his gear into his backpack. He had thought he was becoming acclimated to tromping around in the snow and spending hours out in the cold, but hiking with dozens of pounds of gear was sapping his energy more than he had expected. It drained him just knowing that he couldn’t step back into the warmth of the bunker whenever he wanted. As he followed his own tracks back the way he had come, he could tell that his knee was starting to get irritated again as well.

The motivation of the morning had left him. A sharp wind came blowing out of the southwest, and it brought scudding clouds that dimmed the sun as it drew closer to the horizon. Christopher pulled his ski mask down over his face against the cold.

As the sun sank lower, it became clear that he was taking much longer going back than he had on the way out. He came to the hill with three distinctive pines where he had taken his mid-morning snack as the sun approached the mountain peaks, casting them in red light. All he could think was how lucky he was that he had decided to take a test outing before attempting the real thing.

He climbed to the top of the hill and squatted among the three trees for another snack, watching the sun come down to touch the tallest peaks. He remembered to drink his water and found once again that he was incredibly thirsty. He rose and picked up the sled rope, but before he could start down the hill, a crack rang out, echoing among the trees and hills.

It could have been a large branch breaking somewhere in the distance, but something about the timbre of it gave Christopher the unshakable feeling that it was the sound of a gun, far in the distance. He waited and listened, holding his breath without realizing it. The silence was cut only by the gusting wind. He knew there were probably a dozen natural explanations for such a noise in the wilderness, but it left him feeling uneasy.

After a minute or two, he continued. The sun sank past the distant mountains and the now-cloudy sky lit up like a purple and red bruise, then faded slowly to black. It felt like a defeat when Christopher was forced to get out the gas lantern and light it. It was well after sunset when he reached the long, gentle slope that led down between the cliff face and the pond, back toward the hatch and the bunker. Navigation had been easy. He just had to follow his own trail.

The moon was obscured, but the cloud cover wasn’t complete. There were patches of sky where bright stars still shone through. Christopher paused to take a deep breath of cold air and stare up at them. Even after a frustrating day out in the wilderness, he couldn’t deny that it was beautiful out here.

In the small patch of open sky, framed by gray clouds, a streak of light appeared, followed by another.

“Damn.”

He couldn’t remember if he had ever actually seen shooting stars before. People always seemed to make such a big deal about them in TV and movies, but it was just a tiny streak of light, so quick and faint that he wondered if he had imagined it. Still, he decided to take it as a sign of good luck, finishing out an otherwise unsatisfying day.

“I wish to not die alone in the wilderness,” he said, under his breath. Then, recalling that he had seen two, he added, “And I’d like to go home, please.”

The sigh of warm air as he opened the hatch was a relief. He dragged the sled inside and left a trail of slightly damp clothes across the floor on the way to the bunk room. He had just enough energy to replace them with warm, dry clothes. Then he fell into bed, where he was immediately asleep.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 6.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Christopher woke before the piped-in sunlight illuminated the bunker. The days were getting shorter. He wondered if he was far enough north to see days of near-total darkness in the depths of winter. He opened the footlocker in front of the bed and dressed. He had packed it with the few sets of clothes he had found in the bunker that fit him relatively well. Most were slightly baggy, although he had made some crude adjustments to waistbands with a small sewing kit.

He ate a dull breakfast of oatmeal, flavored with a packet of freeze-dried berries. He put on his jacket and snow-pants, grabbed his backpack of supplies, and exited the hatch, dragging a makeshift sled behind him. It was fashioned out of a sheet-metal shelf from the pantry, with a length of rope passed through the bolt-holes.

It had snowed again, several inches of fluffy powder, so he got out his snow shoes to travel easier. He trekked down the shoreline to an area thick with large pines. He had been working his way through this section of trees, chopping off the most easily accessible branches and collecting the dead wood. He made three trips today, loading the sled thigh-high with wood each time.

He didn’t drag it all the way back to the bunker. Instead, he brought it to a shallow pit he had dug and surrounded with a ring of rocks. It was nestled next to a tangle of low shrubs that protected the fire from the wind, making it easier to light. The line of trees further off gave the smoke a chance to rise before the wind caught it. The smoke still dissipated as it rose above the tree line, but he could only hope that the faint haze would be enough to tip off any observers.

He sat on a flat rock near the pit, periodically feeding more wood into the fire and writing in his notebook. He marked the days so that he wouldn’t lose track of time. He wasn’t quite sure how much time he had lost after the initial crash, but he figured he had been at the bunker for eight or nine days. Enough time that anyone looking for him would probably be looking for a body, rather than a survivor.

Once he had put the last of the wood on the fire, he packed his things. He had been exploring the area around the lake, and had discovered that there was a place about a few hundred feet east of the hatch where the sheer cliff was broken by a gap. It looked as though a whole section of the wall had sloughed off, leaving behind gravel and fist-sized rocks. A shallow slope rose through the gap, leading to a shelf some twenty feet up. From there, several navigable paths branched off.

Christopher had spent a good part of two days exploring up on the cliff, making a crude map in his journal as he went. He wanted to find a vantage point to get a better view of his surroundings. Today, he followed a rough path that went further up, finding that it eventually turned back in the direction of the bunker entrance, rising steadily the whole way. It led to a narrow ledge that tapered to nothing, but he found a few hand-holds up to another, wider ledge. After a couple hours of hiking, it led him to a flat spot that he guessed must be nearly straight above the hatchway. From here, he could survey his tiny corner of the world.

From above, the shape of the lake was quite different from what he had imagined as he walked the perimeter. He had envisioned it as a bean shape, with the lobe closest to the bunker a little bigger than the one further away. He had found a dozen or more lakes like that on the map he had found in the bunker. From his higher vantage point, he could see that it was more like a “3,” with a third protrusion in the middle that jutted out beyond the other two.

Christopher had studied the map for days. He knew that shape. It was the shape of a specific pond on the map, one of a handful directly adjacent to the unlabeled squares. He had no way to take a picture from this high vantage point. His phone was either in the burnt remains of plane, scattered across a mountainside, or at the bottom of the pond. He took off his gloves for a few minutes to sketch in the notebook. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough considering his half-numb hands.

He made his way back, purposely taking his time. His leg was still sore, but he no longer felt a knifing pain when he put weight on it. Now that it was healing, he didn’t want to re-injure it with an accidental slip or fall. Going down the final slope turned out to be the most taxing part. It felt significantly steeper descending than it had ascending, but he found a piece of dead wood for a walking stick and sidled his way down without incident.

He made it back to the hatch before the sun had reached its zenith, but he felt as though he had already spent a full day outside. He made an early lunch of rice and beans to regain his energy. When he had finished, he set the map and his sketch on the table.

After all the hours he had spent studying the map, it was gratifying to see that the shape of the pond from above clearly identified his location on the map. It was also irritating that he had wasted so much time scrutinizing all the little bean-shaped ponds simply because he couldn’t get a good sense of the shape from walking the perimeter. He circled his location on the map with the pencil. It was a little square in the bottom left corner.

The squares were scattered across the map, but there was clearly a pattern, with several lines of them radiating out in five directions from the middle, like an octopus. Pentapus? There was nothing marked in that central area, but from the contour lines it appeared to be the tallest peak in the area. The square above the little “3”-shaped lake was at the very end of one of these spokes. Only one other dot was anywhere near it.

There was no indication of scale on the map. The only easy measure that Christopher could think of was the lake itself. He didn’t particularly trust his own eyes, but he guessed the lake was about a mile long. He carved little notches in the pencil with his fingernail, using it as a rough ruler. The distance between most of the squares was anywhere from ten to twenty miles, if his guess was accurate. The distance from his square to the next one was about fifteen miles.

He had been hiking up and down the relatively flat and open shoreline of the lake for several days. Fifteen miles of that type of terrain might be hard to manage in a single day, especially if he were carrying supplies. But the terrain would almost certainly be rougher. In every direction, the landscape was mountainous and rocky, and often dense with trees or brush.

An even bigger issue would be keeping track of where he was. There were compasses among the gear in the bunker, but the rough, hilly terrain would force Christopher to go around obstacles. The map had little detail apart from the contours of the land, and bodies of water. Those would need to be the landmarks he navigated by.

A faint crackle of static issued from the radio over in the corner. Christopher left it on day and night now. He never caught anything, apart from a few seconds of the numbers station here and there. The radio and the smoke signals held no hope for him at this point. There was no rescue coming. If he wanted to get home, he was going to have to do it himself.

He circled the square closest to his own on the map, and drew a line for his route. He flipped the journal to a fresh page and began a list of the things he would need for an expedition.

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What I Learned From “The Martian”

The Martian is a 2011 sci-fi suspense novel about astronaut Mark Watney, who finds himself stranded on Mars after a huge dust storm ends his crew’s mission and nearly kills him. It’s a book that combines near-future hard science-fiction with a classic survival story. Author Andy Weir keeps the story rooted in realistic science and extrapolates what the first few manned missions to Mars might look like. But it’s Watney’s struggle to survive and overcome one impossible challenge after another that gives the book its heart.

Rather than review a decade-old book, I decided to look at what the story does well, and what lessons I can learn from it to improve my own writing.

A Good Opening Is a Juggling Act

There’s a lot going on at the start of the book. The astronauts of the Mars mission leave their habitation module in the midst of a severe dust storm, fleeing to their launch vehicle so they can escape before it tips over in the high winds. They’re unable to see each other in the dust. When Watney is skewered by a high-speed flying antenna, disabling him and his suit’s comms, his teammates have no choice but to leave him for dead.

Weir could have started the book with this high-octane action scene, but he doesn’t. Instead, he starts with this:

Chapter 1

LOG ENTRY: SOL 6

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.

Six days into what should be the greatest month of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.

I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”

And it’ll be right, probably. ‘Cause I’ll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.

There’s no doubt that the action scene would start the book on an exciting note, and it would set up the plot nicely, but wouldn’t do much more than that. Instead, Weir starts with a log entry and Watney’s assessment of his situation, before he describes what happened.

This has a few advantages. It immediately gives us hints of Watney’s personality. The way he describes the situation is important. These few sentences set up Watney as the main character and the challenge he will have to overcome: surviving Mars, alone. This primes us to ask “what the heck happened?” And now we’re hooked, and we keep reading to find out more.

Adjust the Narrative Style to Fit Your Needs

I can’t remember the last time I read a book that splits up the scenes of the story in so many different ways.

The first five chapters (about fifty pages) are told entirely through Watney’s computer logs. We get to know him and his situation, and see him go into problem-solving mode as he tries to solve the immediate challenges of staying alive. Interestingly, the logs are relatively short, with several logs per chapter.

Next, the book goes into a third-person narrative style to go back to Earth and the folks back at NASA. There is a larger cast of characters to follow at NASA, so this shift makes it a lot easier to follow what’s happening, while sacrificing some of the closeness to a single character that the “logs” style give us with Watney.

The next major shift is at chapter 12, about halfway through the book, where we finally get a flashback to the action-packed scene of the astronauts fleeing earth. This comes at a time where things are going well for Watney, so it injects a bit of needed tension. More importantly, this flashback serves to introduce us to the rest of the crew of the Ares III mission, just in time for them to come into the story. After the flashback, we immediately roll into a scene with these same people in the present.

Finally, throughout the book, little mini-scenes and dialogues play out as back-and-forth messages between those in space and those back on earth. These serve a few different purposes, but mostly convey necessary info quickly so the story can move on to something more interesting.

What was most surprising to me about all of this is that it’s really not distracting. As long as these different techniques are written well and serve the needs of the story, they enhance the experience, rather than detracting.

Go to Great Lengths to Cut the Boring Bits

The style of Watney’s logs give Weir a great way to skip the boring parts, and opportunities to create micro-tension as Watney describes his plans in one log, then describes the results of those plans in the next log, often within the same chapter.

The story doesn’t even touch on the people back at NASA or Watney’s crewmates until it’s time for them to enter the story. All along the way, the important information is provided, the characters introduced, exactly when they are needed. Information that isn’t worth an entire scene is conveyed through quick exposition or text messages.

The book doesn’t slow down, because as soon as there’s any risk of that happening we skip ahead to the next exciting bit.

The Try/Fail Cycle is an Engine That Drives the Story

Watney is faced with a big challenge: survive and somehow get off Mars. That one overarching goal is actually composed of dozens of smaller challenges: having enough food, water and air; making contact with earth; and traveling hundreds of kilometers to another mission’s launch vehicle. Back on Earth, they have their own challenges. As the characters try to solve each problem, they sometimes succeed, sometimes fail, sometimes have to change strategies and try again, or deal with the fallout of a bad decision or unexpected event.

The book exemplifies how the try/fail cycle can drive a plot. The characters have clear goals and sub-goals, and clear stakes for success or failure. Plus, Weir uses these cycles to ramp the tension up or down. I could sense when a few things had gone well for Watney that it was just about time for some new catastrophe to blow up all his well-laid plans.

The tension only abates occasionally, to give the reader a reprieve. Once we’ve taken a collective breath, a new problem is introduced, and once again the characters have their work cut out for them. They have to inch forward, fighting every step of the way.

One example even interleaves Watney’s happy logs, where everything is going smoothly for a change, with italics description of the manufacturing process for a particular piece of equipment. What would otherwise be relatively mundane description of things going well becomes ominous as it becomes clear that the description is foreshadowing the imminent failure of that equipment, and the ensuing disaster.

Asymmetric Information Can Create Tension

For most of the book, Watney is completely cut off from NASA, or can only communicate one-way through simple morse code messages, spelled out in rocks and read through satellite photos. This creates a dynamic where Watney knows things that the people at NASA do not, and vice versa. In each of these cases, Weir uses this asymmetric knowledge to create tension.

The reader, being able to look out through multiple viewpoints, can see the incoming problem while some of the characters remain ignorant until it’s too late. The characters would have too easy a time overcoming some of these challenges if they could work together with no hindrance, so Weir creates believable problems that prevent them from working together.

Sometimes You Don’t Need a Villain

A lot of readers love a great villain, but this book really doesn’t have one, and it still works. If anything, Mars is the antagonist, but none of the characters really bear any ill will toward the big red rock. Despite effectively being a prisoner on the planet, alone for months, Watney has mixed feelings whenever he thinks he might actually escape.

If the book has any overarching message, it’s one of optimism. It says that almost anything can be overcome with human ingenuity, and our greatest strength is our ability to work together. Near the end of the book, Watney ponders how he could have never come as far as he had without the help of hundreds of people working tirelessly at NASA, along with the rest of his Ares III crewmates, and even some surprise help from the Chinese space agency.

A story like this can be hopeful without being saccharine. Not every story is zero-sum. Sometimes nobody has to lose and everyone can win. And I think that’s the kind of story that a lot of readers are finding appealing right now.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 5.3

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

When God-Speaker and Braves-the-Storm returned to the rest of the people, it was nearly dark. Soon after, the hunters returned, not with deer, but with two more hares.

“You said there were deer in the trees,” Far-Seeing said, setting the rabbits on the ground and sauntering up to God-Speaker.

“I only heard something like deer,” God-Speaker said.

Far-Seeing raised a finger and opened his mouth to reply, but he was cut off by Braves-the-Storm.

“There were tracks. You followed them, didn’t you?”

Far-Seeing gave the old man a surly look. “We followed them until it was dark. We found no deer.”

“You found meat,” God-Speaker said, trying to sound encouraging. “If the deer have moved on, then there is nothing else you could do.”

Far-Seeing turned and walked away, scowling. “If you think we can’t track deer, you’re welcome to come on the next hunt. Maybe the spirits can tell us where to find meat.”

It was less of a feast than everyone had hoped for, but once they had been skinned and cooked, there was enough for each person to have a few bites, and the mood around the fires improved. The pelts would be fine and soft as well, caught between winter white and summer brown.

Braves-the-Storm told the people about the small tribe of strangers that he and God-Speaker had seen across the river. They had never had reason to fear other tribes before, but with the death of Makes-Medicine still fresh in their minds nobody was happy to have another tribe somewhere nearby. Wood was plentiful near the trees, so they fed the fires until they burned high and bright. A few of the hunters took turns staying awake, watching the path back toward the river crossing.

God-Speaker stayed awake for much of the night too, but not out of fear of the strangers. The other tribe did not feel like a threat to him. One of the strangers had set down his spear in what seemed like a gesture of peace.

The faint sound of the nearby river made him think of a time when he was a child, and the people had journeyed along the sea. It was so much water; sheet ice and shimmering waves stretching into the distance. That was before the years journeying through the mountains. And what had been before that? All the people knew was the journey, never ending. There were stories of a time long ago when they had lived in snowless lands. Then the ice came, covering everything. Evil spirits bringing cold to destroy the people. What would it be like to find another snowless land? What would it be like for God-Speaker to lead the people to that place?

God-Speaker rolled in close to the stone god and murmured to it.

“Will you bring us somewhere without snow and ice?”

The god was silent and still.

God-Speaker rolled onto his back again. What would they encounter tomorrow, away from the river?

He thought about Makes-Medicine. He tried to remember what she had told him—about the spirits, about the rituals and the herbs and plants that could heal sickness. He could no longer ask her questions. He was afraid that he would forget something important. What secrets had she not passed on to him? What had he missed or forgotten? Those things would be lost to the people forever now.

He lay on the hard ground, staring up into the clear sky. Among the bright stars, there were two streaks of light, one after another. He waited, frozen in place, and watched. Another streak. Another.

These, at least, he remembered. Makes-Medicine said that many signs could be good or evil, to be interpreted by the events surrounding them. But shooting stars were almost always a bad omen.

God-Speaker sat up. The god remained silent; a hunched mass in its pouch. Far-Seeing squatted near one of the fires, half-dark, half illuminated, watching the darkness between the river and the trees. Everyone else was asleep.

God-Speaker lay back down. He closed his eyes and tried to remember everything Makes-Medicine had ever taught him.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 5.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

It did not take long to come to the narrow part of the river. They found it was an even better crossing than it had appeared from above. Many of the rocks and boulders that had washed down the river collected here in a place where the water cut back and forth through a crack in a huge shelf of solid stone. The water was very deep and fast, but the crossing was narrow enough that everyone could jump it, even mothers carrying their children. The only child too big to carry was Black-Eyes-Staring, and he was nearly a man and able to make the jump by himself, under the worried eyes of his mother. They crossed one by one, with people waiting on the far side to catch them, until all were across.

The land was rocky and barren around the crossing, but they soon came to the trees that God-Speaker had seen from the ridge. They covered a broad area of rolling hills. Birch and pines grew far apart, surrounded by tangled bushes and undergrowth. All the plants and trees were eager for spring and had sprouted new growth and new leaves.

The people followed the edge of the forest, still within sight of the river, and soon came upon hoof-prints in a half-frozen patch of mud. The sun was still well above the horizon, but they immediately stopped and made camp. Several of the hunters took their spears and slings and went off into the trees while the rest of the people made quiet, excited conversation.

God-Speaker saw Braves-the-Storm at the edge of the group, and the man motioned for God-Speaker to join him. God-Speaker looked down to the pack that he had only just removed from his aching shoulders. He left the god sleeping there, in the middle of the camp, and followed Braves-the-Storm.

“If we do not hunt, we can at least look ahead,” he said as God-Speaker caught up.

They walked a little ways in the space between the trees and the river. The shadows grew long in the fading light. The water was quieter here. The furrow carved by the river cut deeper and deeper into the earth. They approached the edge and saw that the water was far below now. The walls of the little canyon were slick with ice. Even here, the gap between the walls was not wide. Braves-the-Storm picked up a rock and threw it to the other side. It barely cleared the gap and skittered into a line of gray boulders.

Suddenly, the shape of a person holding a spear came walking from behind those boulders, followed by several more. They were not quite shadows, but were hard to see clearly with the sun setting behind them. They stood in a line, looking across the gap at God-Speaker and Braves-the-Storm. It was a small group, much smaller than their own people. God-Speaker thought of the strange man who had invaded their valley days before. Did these people look the same? It was hard to tell. He tensed, watching for any sign of danger.

The man with the spear crouched and set his weapon on the ground. Then he stood and made a broad, sweeping gesture with his arms. One of the others spoke or made some sound, but it meant nothing to God-Speaker. He looked to Braves-the-Storm, but his face showed uncertainty too. After a few silent moments, the others walked back to the line of boulders, turned, and went out of sight up-river.

When God-Speaker and Braves-the-Storm returned to the rest of the people, it was nearly dark. The hunters had returned, not with deer, but with two more hares. It was less of a feast than everyone had hoped for, but once they had been skinned and cooked, there was enough for each person to have a small portion, and the mood around the fires improved. The pelts, caught between winter white and summer brown, would be fine and soft as well.

Braves-the-Storm told the people about the small group of others that he and God-Speaker had seen across the river. They had never had reason to fear other tribes before, but with the death of Makes-Medicine still fresh in their minds, nobody was excited to have another tribe somewhere nearby. Wood was plentiful near the trees, so they fed the fires until they burned high and bright. A few of the hunters took turns staying awake, watching the path back toward the river crossing.

God-Speaker stayed awake for much of the night too. The other tribe did not feel like a threat to him. The man had set down his spear in what seemed like a gesture of peace. Still, he worried about what they might encounter tomorrow, away from the river. He thought about Makes-Medicine. He tried to remember everything she had ever told him, about the spirits, about the rituals and the herbs and plants that could heal sickness. He could no longer ask her questions. He was afraid that he would forget something important. What secrets had she not passed on to him? What had he missed or forgotten? Those things would be lost to the people forever now.

He lay on his back, staring up into the clear sky. Among the bright stars, there were two streaks of light, one after another. He waited, frozen in place, and watched. Another streak. Another.

These, at least, he remembered. Makes-Medicine said that many signs could be good or evil, to be interpreted by the events surrounding them. But shooting stars were almost always a bad omen.

God-Speaker sat up. The god remained silent; a hunched black mass in its pouch. Far-Seeing squatted near one of the fires, half-dark, half illuminated, watching the void between the river and the trees. Everyone else was asleep.

God-Speaker lay back down. He closed his eyes and tried to remember everything Makes-Medicine had ever taught him.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 5.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

The people followed the river for days as it descended through the mountains. The great ice that filled in the cracks of the world was here, as it was everywhere. They could often see fields of ice filling the low places. Sometimes it was milky white, sometimes it was the deep blue of the sky just before nightfall. Even though winter was fading, the wind still cut like sharp flint, and the nights were bone-numbingly cold.

Early spring was a dangerous time. The reserves of dry meat, fish and berries that had sustained them through the winter were nearly gone, but the land was just beginning to awaken. There would be few edible plants to find, and nothing would fruit until well after the next full moon. Some animals were still in their long winter sleep. What few could be found would be lean and tough.

The river was a lifeline, not only because it gave them a path to follow, but because it kept them close to the river spirit, who could watch over and protect them. The tribe made good speed after the mild winter in the valley, but they were uneasy. They spoke little as they walked. They had suffered already this spring, and everyone was waiting to see if that hardship would lead to better days, or to more troubles.

God-Speaker felt the weight of their stares, saw them looking away when he turned. There were some who had grumbled when Makes-Medicine had adopted God-Speaker as family. The grumbling was quieter, but no less, when he had heard the stone god speaking and Makes-Medicine had announced that he was a shaman and spirit-talker. Now that she was gone, they were getting louder again. God-Speaker heard the whispers, and he could guess what was being said beyond his hearing.

There was no question of Makes-Medicine’s authority, at least while she was alive. She was beloved by the people, and a hard loss to bear. Now, the unspoken order of the tribe was unsettled. Despite Makes-Medicine’s blessing, God-Speaker was young and untested as a shaman. The tribe had not yet seen proof of the powerful visions or the deep understanding of the spirits that Makes-Medicine had shown. And God-Speaker knew there were some who expected him to be a failure. The grumblers were eager for Braves-the-Storm to lead. He was Makes-Medicine’s brother, now the eldest of the tribe, and wise by all accounts. And he had been a great hunter in his younger days.

Still, the people were a community that worked together. Respect had to be given to those who earned it. For now, the questions of leadership would remain open, and the people would watch and judge everything that God-Speaker did and said. God-Speaker had never wanted the burden of leading, but he had been chosen by the stone god, and by Makes-Medicine, and now he was trapped. When the stone god had first spoken to him, it was thrilling. For once, he felt useful. Now, he wondered if it would have been better for him to have not been chosen.

Three days into the journey, a storm crept over the mountains, dumping heavy, wet snow on them. Travel was slow and miserable, and there were no dry places to sleep. The tribe’s mood worsened, but they continued to descend, following the river and hoping to get clear of the snow.

They came to a place where the river wound back on itself, running between a series of ridges. He heard talk at the front of the group: some of the hunters, men his own age. They were talking about climbing the nearest ridge to see the lay of the land and the course of the river below.

The stone god had been quiet for days, only whispering wordlessly now and then. Now it spoke to him clearly. Go up.

Two of the tribe’s best hunters, Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail, were already scrambling up the steep, slippery ridge. It was icy, and covered in loose rock that skittered down behind them.

God-Speaker wanted to back away, into the group that was settling in to wait. Instead, he stepped forward and took a deep, shaky breath. He set down his pack of personal belongings next to the packs the hunters had left behind. Finally, he adjusted the second pack, the one that held the stone god, and began to climb. He heard a few whispers from behind. Nobody had expected him to go up. They did not hear the stone god. They did not feel the compulsion that gripped him.

The slope was shallow enough that it could be walked, if it weren’t so slippery and loosely-packed. God-Speaker kept his hands out, sometimes for balance, sometimes scrabbling on all fours. He slid and scraped his knees and hands. He slowed. The other two continued up the slope above, getting further and further ahead. One of them looked back down at him and grinned mockingly.

To God-Speaker’s surprise, someone else came up the slope behind him. It was Braves-the-Storm. Unlike the younger men, he was clearly taking his time, picking each step and hand-hold carefully. Despite his age and his deliberate movement, he soon caught up to God-Speaker and began to move ahead. As he passed, he nodded to God-Speaker, his face showing no emotion beyond the strain of climbing.

God-Speaker knew he could not catch the hunters, especially once they had seen him coming up behind. Unlike them, he had never earned names praising his strength or hunting prowess. He had always been weak and clumsy. But it was embarrassing to be unable to even keep up with Braves-the-Storm, no matter how strong the old man was for his age.

The two hunters reached the top of the ridge when God-Speaker was only halfway up. They turned back and shouted offers of assistance down to Braves-the-Storm, but he only waved them off. They looked past him to God-Speaker, but said nothing more and walked out of sight.

By the time Braves-the-Storm reached the top, God-Speaker was struggling. He was hot with exertion and freezing at the same time. The cold wind turned the sweat to ice in his hair and beard. His back burned and his hands and arms were shaking with effort. For a moment, he thought about stopping, letting go and sliding back down.

The stone god whispered and hissed. He kept going.

Braves-the-Storm sat at the top of the ridge, catching his breath and waiting for God-Speaker. He offered a hand and pulled him up the last few feet. They sat for a moment, together, looking down on the rest of the people at the bottom of the slope.

Before God-Speaker could calm his breathing, Braves-the-Storm stood with a grunt, giving him a light slap on the shoulder as he turned and followed the two hunters. God-Speaker wanted to sit until the shakiness left his limbs, but he stood and followed.

“We wondered if you would make it,” Far-Seeing said, and both men smirked.

Braves-the-Storm did not smile. “He carries a heavier burden.”

“Heavier than the seasons you carry?” Finds-the-Trail replied. But his smile faded in the face of Braves-the-Storm’s stoic stare.

There was a smooth outcrop of rock at the top of the ridge. Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail stood side-by-side, looking down at the land beyond. God-Speaker and Braves-the-Storm stood beside them. From where they stood, the land fell, and fell again down bare stony ledges. The river twisted and turned before pouring into a canyon crusted with ice. It was narrow before the falls—narrow enough that the people might be able to cross it. It was clear that they couldn’t follow the river down. They’d have to pick one side of the canyon or the other.

It was the moment God-Speaker had dreaded. They could no longer follow the river. They might be able to stay close and find it again below, but they had to make a choice now.

“Which side of the river looks best?” asked Finds-the-Trail. He was clearly thinking along the same lines as God-Speaker.

“Even where it’s narrow, it will be dangerous to cross,” Braves-the-Storm replied. “We should not take that risk without good reason.”

“We could stay on this side for now,” God-Speaker said. “We may follow the canyon down to that far ridge and see more of what lies ahead.”

The hunters both narrowed their eyes, as though annoyed that God-Speaker would involve himself in their conversation.

“Yes,” said Braves-the-Storm, “but the path is rough with rocks and ice. It will be slow. We may spend a day or more getting there, and if the trail ahead looks bad, then we will have to come back to the narrow place.”

“Whichever side we pick, we may not find a good path,” Finds-the-Trail said.

Their voices faded from God-Speaker’s ears. At the top of the ridge, the whispers of the stone god grew to a roar. They clung to him and made him itch. He felt compelled to kneel on the flat stone. He swung the leather pack around in front of him. His shoulders throbbed as the burden was removed. The outside world dulled and blurred. He opened the pack and gently slid the stone from it. It was all he could focus on. He cradled the god in his lap, and they surveyed the land together, like a parent cradling a child.

God-Speaker could not tell if the others were still talking amongst themselves. Everything close had become hazy, but the land in the distance was bright and clear. God-Speaker couldn’t hear his own breath. He couldn’t hear the wind scouring the ridge or his companions’ voices, but he could hear the rustle of trees across the river. He could hear the water far away as it quickened down its narrow channel, falling into the canyon in a foamy rush.

Away, beyond the next ridge, before the river dropped from sight, there were other noises. A dull thumping, as of hooves on hard ground, and then a deep bellow. The low groan rose into an eerie trumpeting that echoed among the rocks. It was a sound like elk or deer might make, but strange enough that God-Speaker wondered if it was some other, stranger beast the people did not know.

“Have you ever heard such a noise?” he asked.

“What noise?”

The fog fell away. Once again, the far-away ridge and the river and the woods were distant and muted, and the rock was hard beneath him. He could hear his own breathing again. It was slow and steady now. He shivered as the sweat of the climb dried on his neck and face.

The others stood nearby, looking down on him. The hunters wore their familiar irritated expressions. Braves-the-Storm was impassive.

“You were in a trance,” he said. “We heard nothing but the wind. Did the god speak to you?”

“Not with words,” God-Speaker said. He pointed toward the patch of forest. “I heard hooves on the other side of the river, beyond the ridge. Maybe among those trees. I heard bellows, too.”

“Deer?” asked Finds-the-Trail. He looked interested, in spite of himself.

God-Speaker shook his head. “I don’t know. They were strange, not like deer or elk I have heard before.”

“We should be wary,” Braves-the-Storm said. “It may be some new kind of deer, or a predator.”

“Deer meat would be worth crossing the river for,” Far-Seeing said.

The people still had some of their winter fare. They dug up what edible roots and plants they could find as they traveled, and Far-Seeing had killed a hare with a well-aimed sling-stone, but something as large as a deer could feed everyone.

Finds-the-Trail nodded. “We should cross if there is a chance of deer.”

Braves-the-Storm crossed his arms over his chest. “What do you think, God-Speaker? Did the God show you anything else?”

God-Speaker looked down at the smooth stone head. It was silent now. Even the whispers had quieted.

“Nothing,” he said. “I think it must have a reason to let me hear this, but even Makes-Medicine said that signs from the spirits could often be interpreted in many different ways. I think we should cross, but we should watch carefully for animal signs.”

They said nothing more, but stood for a moment, looking out over the land and holding as much of it in their memories as they could. The hunters seemed caught between their irritation with him and the hope of fresh meat. God-Speaker slid the stone god into its pack and pulled it onto his aching shoulders once more. They all went down together, the hunters again leading the way.

Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail moved among the group to explain what they had seen ahead. The people began walking again, with Braves-the-Storm leading the way. God-Speaker walked in the middle of the group. He heard mentions of deer here and there in the group, but nobody approached him to ask what he had seen or heard on the ridge.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 4.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with a new chapter published every week. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

There were three or four of everything in the storage room, which meant that Christopher had a limited range of random clothing sizes to choose from. The largest pair of boots was about a size too big, but the rest of the boots were far too small. He found one of the heavy overcoats that fit well enough and a pair of gloves that were perfect for him. Then he grabbed a tinderbox and a hatchet and made his first real excursion outside the bunker.

The radio was still the most likely way to make contact with the outside world, but he had no idea what frequency he was broadcasting on, what frequencies anyone was likely to be listening on, or what the range was on the damn thing. The only transmissions he had heard were from the cycling numbers station, and if they were hearing him, they weren’t acknowledging it. A multi-pronged approach was in order. He would try other signals.

First, he shuffled to the nearest group of pines and chopped off the lower branches, looking for a good mix of dead wood and green. He heaped it up in the rocky, open space between the bunker door and the lake. Then he collected a large pile of dry pine needles. He criss-crossed small bits of deadwood over the needle pile.

He still had sharp pains in a variety of joints when doing almost any physical activity, but it felt good to be outside, and he thought his troublesome right leg felt a little bit better. He was sweating under the overcoat after fifteen minutes of chopping and hauling.

The tinderbox was a little wooden box painted gray-green and labeled in stenciled white letters. When he opened it, he found several strips of black cloth and two pieces of metal. Christopher had never used flint and steel, but he had assumed that one would clearly look like metal and the other would clearly look like rock. These were both rectangular metallic pieces of slightly different proportions. He had to scrape a few edges between them before he got them to spark.

Once he understood the basics, it was surprisingly easy to produce a cascade of sparks with the flint and steel. He tried to light the little pile of pine needles, but a cold wind was gusting across the open space, and the needles only smoked and smoldered. He piled the wood next to the needles, as a bulwark against the wind, then stood on that side as well. Already sweaty, he was getting uncomfortably hot striking the flint and steel over and over. The wind was icy on his neck and face where his clammy skin was exposed.

He had wanted to save the little scraps of fabric that were obviously intended to be used as kindling, but the needles refused to light after several minutes. He finally took a scrap of the black cloth out and draped it over the needles. It only took a few tries for the sparks to light it, creating a tiny, fluttering flame. With the flame going, the needles caught fire more easily, and soon he had a decent little fire going.

“You thought this would be easy,” he muttered. “You didn’t think about how you’ve never done any of this before. You’ve barely been camping. Flint and steel starts fire. Wood burns. Easy, right?”

He placed several dry branches onto the pile as it crackled and sizzled. The needles were consumed in less than a minute, and the pine branches were burning well, but much more quickly than he had expected. The wood he had cut would only last a few minutes, and he had built the little fire a hundred feet from the trees.

“You’ve got to plan these things step by step,” he said. He threw the rest of the dry wood onto the flames, and stacked a few pieces of the green wood with intact needles on top, in hopes that it would burn more slowly.

He hobbled back to the copse, finding an untouched tree to hack at. He glanced at the fire as he worked, worrying as the flames dwindled. He chopped quickly and haphazardly, and returned to the much-diminished fire with an armful of wood. He sorted out some of the dead branches and threw them on to get the fire going again, then began to arrange the rest of the wood over it.

He had hoped to get a good fire going, then use the green wood to create thick smoke for a signal that could be seen by any nearby towns or passing aircraft. However, the wood was burning too fast and not generating that much smoke. The plume blew away in the wind before it could get very high. The attempt was clearly a failure. He’d just have to treat it as a test run. He would need an improved plan for the next time.

He would need more fuel. The fire ate through the skinny pine boughs much more quickly than he’d anticipated. He’d want to look for something that made thicker smoke. The fresh needles and green wood produced an unimpressive amount of gray smoke that would be hard for anyone to see against the dull clouds or snowy peaks. Finally, he would need to do something about the wind. It would help to wait for a calmer day, but Christopher didn’t know what typical weather was like up here. For all he knew, the wind always blew like this.

The problem with the wood was that he had already hacked away a lot of the lower branches from the pines close to the bunker entrance for his failed fire. He would need to go further afield, to the trees ranging further down the lake shore. He would need to do some scouting, which was fine because he had already intended to walk around the lake and get a better sense of his surroundings. He needed to determine conclusively where the bunker was on the map (or if it even was on the map).

He felt his energy ebbing. A slow walk around the lake had seemed reasonable first thing in the morning, but now he wasn’t so sure. He would definitely need a more manageable solution for hauling the wood if he was going to chop more and bring it further for another fire.

The sun was getting high in the sky. Christopher went back to the bunker and looked for some food that he could take with him. There were shelves in the pantry that appeared to contain various kinds of field rations. A few were labeled “MRE,” but many of the packages were inscrutable. He found a box of bars in vacuum-packed plastic that were pliable and made from some kind of reddish-brown, greasy, granular substance with more colorful bits embedded. He guessed they were some kind of granola bar, or a very odd piece of jerky. Either way, he grabbed two and went back out.

There was a tall, lonely birch among the pines that he had used for his fire, and he found a thick, sturdy branch to use as a walking stick. He began trekking down the shoreline.

The beach was mostly gravel — sharp little shards of rock — and Christopher found it easier to walk further back from the water, where the rocks gave way to hard ground, scrubby grass, and occasional shrubs and boulders.

Once again, Christopher was struck by the desolate beauty of the landscape around him. There were no planes overhead; no signs of people whatsoever. He barely even saw animals. Occasionally, a sparrow or chickadee would hop between nearby branches or be visible picking at half-frozen berries in a bush. Christopher saw a flash of movement in the needled carpet beneath some pines, but couldn’t identify the animal. Otherwise, the only sound was the wind and the faint lapping of the water.

Time passed. He had no way to measure it exactly, but the sun was descending. With mountains all around, the horizon was high, and the sun set quickly. He felt himself slowing down, and his right knee was tightening up. He knew he was pushing his body more than was smart, but there was some sort of freedom in moving, in being outside instead of trapped in the stone-walled bunker.

He wouldn’t be able to make it around the lake before sunset, so he decided to take a break. He found a small boulder with a flat top and took a seat. He took out one of the sealed bars and opened it. It had a faintly salty smell, not unlike bacon, with a fruity tang. It didn’t smell rotten, but it was a little musty.

He took a tentative nibble. It was greasy and a little meaty, like a sort of ground-up jerky. The brighter bits turned out to be some kind of fruit, maybe dried cranberry. If someone had asked Christopher whether he wanted to eat ground jerky with berries a few days earlier, he would have replied with an emphatic no, but now that he tasted it, it wasn’t awful. Not exactly a treat, but after a morning of exercise in the cold, it was energizing.

The sun dimmed behind a fluffy pile of cumulonimbus clouds, and Christopher could feel the temperature drop a few degrees as he finished the strange bar. The living landscape painting surrounding him was drained of its color, leaving a world of the same gray-green that was so prominent inside the bunker. Heavy flakes of snow began to fall.

Christopher had already been thinking about turning back, and the snow immediately confirmed that decision. The food reinvigorated him, but his injuries ached more after the brief pause. The snow fell thicker, and soon the world was reduced to a bubble around him as the blowing flakes reduced visibility. The snow accumulated, and the ground grew slippery. Several times his foot slid, and he was grateful for the walking stick to help prop him up and avoid twisting any of his already damaged limbs.

He began to worry that the snow would alter the landscape enough that he would lose track of the bunker. It would be ridiculous to find this safe haven against astronomical odds, only to lose it after a short hike. However, he recognized the trees he had chopped when he came upon them, and the remains of his fire were still a black smudge in the fresh snow.

From there, it was easy to find his way back to the cliff and the embedded hatch. He tapped the code into the keypad and went inside, where the air felt over-hot after the stinging wind and sweating in his overcoat. He stripped off his outer layers and set about making another dinner of rice and beans. If he wasn’t rescued soon, he would have to do a proper inventory of the available food.

He sat, and the uncomfortable couch was blissful. He ate, and the simple food was amazing. He jotted a few notes in the notebook and unfurled the map again, but he had little more to add to his knowledge of the surrounding landscape. Tired and full, he sank into a daze. He thought he ought to do something useful, perhaps try to determine if the radio signal jumped frequencies in a predictable pattern. But he didn’t want to. He was worn out. He was in pain. It was warm in the bunker.

Half-dozing, he felt as though he were drifting outside his own body. In this dreamy state, he watched himself laying back on the couch, doing nothing. He could see backward and forward in time. He glimpsed the insane jump from the plane and the fall into the lake. He saw a smear of future moments, hiking around the lake, lighting signal fires, tuning the radio for meaningless signals.

He felt his heart constricting in his chest. This place was safe and warm, yes. There was food, perhaps for years. There was no immediate danger, no impetus to push him. He saw further back into his life. When had there ever been any impetus? He drifted along the path of least resistance. He was boring and safe. When had he ever taken chances?

He fell into his own body again, waking with sudden adrenaline. He heard his own breathing, shallow and fast. His chest was tight. He clung to the couch. He had the frantic feeling that the stone walls were pressing close. The bunker was a safe, secure prison. It would be easy to stay here, to wait on others to find and rescue him. But his plane had gone down under strange circumstances. They might not be looking.

The easy path would be to wait for whatever would come. Maybe he would be rescued within a week. Maybe he would be trapped for months or years, and eventually run out of food. He knew himself. If he let his guard down, it would go that way. He needed to plan. He needed to do something.

He got up and tried to slow his breathing, still feeling like he might be having a panic attack. He brought the notebook to the radio and scanned the channels. Frustratingly, he couldn’t find the signal at all. Either it wasn’t transmitting, or he was missing it. It was dark outside now, and the overhead lights dimmed to a flickering lamplight glow.

He gave up on the radio and stood, wincing as pain flashed through his right leg. The wood chopping, the hike, and the cold had been too much. Or perhaps it had been the dream-induced panic attack that had tensed his whole body like a single muscle. In any case, his body would limit what he could do for days or weeks to come. He would have to be more careful or risk slowing himself further.

He limped to the bunks and lay gingerly in the bed, still fully clothed. He felt nearly as tired as he had when he had first collapsed in the bunker. He was dirty and sweaty and smelled of fire and pine needles.

He lay there, his eyes too heavy to open, his limbs too heavy to move. But he couldn’t sleep.

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